Club Med Ship Belies Its Reputation on Malay Cruise

Homey atmosphere is a pleasant surprise, but watch out for the vacuum cleaners

It was the name that was a bit of a turn-off. ``Club Med'' still had a ''your cabin or mine?'' ring to it. Nevertheless, the route and exotic ports-of-call drew me: a week-long cruise from Singapore with stops in Malaysia, Koh Samui Island off Thailand, and Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

This is a happy boat, to be sure: kind of a Good Ship Lollipop for grownups. And to make sure you're having a good time (since there's no escape in the middle of the South China Sea), it is staffed with an international group of eager, mostly twenty-something, Mousketeer-coulda-beens known as gentils organisateurs, or ``GOs.'' They're always at hand to help you fill out the endless paperwork needed for your port visits, teach you the fine points of water skiing and wind surfing off the sports deck, make sure you'll never eat alone and will always have a dance partner, and hold your arm to keep you from tripping over a vacuum cleaner, which is always at your feet. This vessel is so clean it would bore Heloise.

Given that Americans must travel halfway around the world to board, it's no surprise that Yanks were as scarce as lint on the ship's sea-blue carpeting.

``You're American?'' one middle-aged bloke from Australia teased. ``Americans don't usually go to Southeast Asia - unless, of course, there's a war!'' he said, landing a good-natured jab in my gut with his elbow. But except for the risk of an occasional bruised rib, it is delightful to share meals and activities with travelers from around the world.

IN fact, passengers on this cruise (no children under 10, please) were from 15 countries - about half from Japan. ``Japanese are the perfect tourists,'' one young Swiss GO commented. ``They're quiet, spend a lot of money, go where they are told, and don't complain.''

They also take a lot of pictures.

On our first stop in Tioman, Malaysia, a group of Western passengers trudged through forest and marsh in search of monkeys, birds, and the elusive Swamp Thing, leaving our Japanese group in the dust.

``They are so slow,'' moaned a Japanese GO, rolling her eyes. ``They are always taking pictures of everything.''

Back on board, we're just in time for lunch. It's buffet-style and reflects the ethnicity of the passengers, with a special bow to Asia: Miso Soup; Lemon Chicken; White Radish and Squid - Japanese Style; and a killer Penne with Mafia Sauce were but a few of the dozen or so hot entrees. For light eaters, a selection of salads, smoked salmon, freshly baked breads, and tropical fruits completed each lunch. As Club Med 2 raised anchor and headed toward Cherating, Malaysia, it was time to get acquainted with the amenities of this two-year-old French ship. Its five computer-operated sails, teak decks, and manageable size (613 feet long, 419 passengers) give it a yachtlike feel, while the roomy cabins, crew of 213, pampered service, sensational food, and variety of activities would please even Robin Leach.

Another word about accommodations: All cabins are outside rooms with double portholes, choice of double or twin beds (even double mini-safes where you can stash your diamond tiara), plenty of closet space, a writing desk, modern toilet and shower, wall-to-wall mirrors, and a telephone and closed-circuit TV. Vintage movies are played over and over in English or dubbed in French with Japanese subtitles. Candid videos of the day's land excursions, filmed by one of the GOs, are also shown for your embarrassment.

Between the endless meals, snacks, and teas, there are peaceful moments in the lounge where you can read in quiet (as long as you keep one step ahead of the vacuum cleaners). Or you can sit in on a lecture on international events given by two French professors, relax on deck, or take a dance lesson.

Maryline, a lovely blonde GO from France, wore a black crepe dress with silver-and-rhinestone stiletto heels. Each evening at 6, she taught a class of mostly giggling Japanese women in Reeboks the finer points of the samba and the cha-cha, while their gleeful husbands saved it all on videotape.

Dinner was always memorable. And unlike breakfast and lunch, the menu is tres French and it's a dress-up affair. One dinner acquaintance, a retired engineer from France who said he had been on more than 20 Club Med cruises and to many CM villages around the world, told of their appeal: ``I like to dance, and I like the evening shows. But the food! I appreciate very well the food, but because I am French, of course.'' He likes Club Med cruises the best: ``There are fewer people, so socially it is warmer.... Also the atmosphere is more reserved [on the ships]. You are here to forget everything.''

After dinner there's always a show in the lounge featuring our tireless GOs giving the old college try singing and dancing. It's all good fun, rather amateurish, and entertaining. (But keep your day jobs, guys.)

We had several interesting ports-of-call on our way to Vietnam, including Tioman, Cherating, and Kota Baharu, Malaysia, and Koh Samui island off of Thailand. These guided land excursions are not included in the price of the cruise, and vary in length and cost. A half-day nature trek may cost $15, while a full-day bus tour with lunch can reach $90.

While at anchor, a sports deck off the stern drops down for those who would rather take advantage of the many water sports offered - scuba diving, snorkeling, water skiing, and wind surfing. These activities, as well as lessons, are included in the cruise price. Meanwhile, tenders make continual trips to the nearest beach for those who would like to swim or explore on their own. Again, no charge.

Our call at Cherating featured a trip to a three-story market that ranks, for color, variety, and activity, as the most charming and intriguing market I have seen.

Another port was the resort-in-the-making of Koh Samui, Thailand. Koh Samui is fast becoming an island of motorbikes, dive shops, beach houses, tattoo and massage parlors, and pizza shops inhabited by Buddhist Thais and a growing subculture of blond surfers, backpackers, and divers. Land is for sale everywhere. A towering golden Buddha, glistening in the tropical sun, stared down at the changing scene with a look of benign resignation.

Back on board we had a full day at sea before making our way up the murky Saigon River to Ho Chi Minh City, dwarfing fishing boats and villages as we slowly glided by.

We disembarked in a warm rain and taxied into town passing bicycle shops, motorcycle repair shops, pool halls, and countless barber shops. We found Ho Chi Minh City a vibrant metropolis of 3 million people with all the, noise and hectic traffic we hadn't experienced since Singapore. Street vendors and beggars hawked everything from cigarettes and Fuji film to shoelaces and two-dollar T-shirts emblazoned with ``Good Morning, Vietnam!'' All exchange in Vietnam, by the way, is in US dollars.

Everywhere, hotels are being renovated in anticipation of a growing tourist trade from the West. Shops sell amber beads, French pastries, and lacquerware wall plaques with images of Buddha, the Virgin Mary, and bucolic scenes of palm-lined beaches and rice fields - all radiant with mother-of-pearl inlay.

Outside the National Theater, a Whitney Houston tape blared into the street, while inside, beneath Venetian chandeliers, an informal badminton game played to an empty auditorium.

There were organized tours as well on our day-and-a-half here: Trips to the Mekong River; Cholon, the city's Chinatown; and Cu Chi, the vast labyrinth of underground tunnels built by the Viet Cong during the war with the United States. And everywhere pleasant, smiling people.

As with most cruises that call on different ports, land visits are all too short. Even our relatively long stay here seemed much too brief. I left Club Med 2 in Ho Chi Minh City as she sailed north to Hong Kong, happier and richer for the experience.

At about $275 per person per day (depending on your cabin deck), this and cruises in general are considered a very good value.

* For further information on Club Med cruises and villages call 1-800-CLUBMED.

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